Tiny portraits are tightly rolled and slipped inside spent bullet casings. Each one holds the image of a victim. It’s a stranger you’ll soon know as you remove the photograph, gently unroll it and pin the image to a vast cloak of black velvet. As you step back, this singular intimate moment morphs into a horrifying panorama. 1102 victims, represented by 1102 gleaming brass shells form a somber memorial to the victims of gun violence in American schools.
1102 bullet casings are attached to a fishing net. We’ve heard these numbers before, regularly, on the news and on social media but the statistics are staggering when made visibly real. The experience has been transformed by the tactile experience of involvement and the physicality of the display. The weight bearing down on the American conscious is immense. Qinza Najm knows this weight well. It’s about forty pounds.
That’s the weight of the bullet-laden veil that Ms. Najm wears during her performance. The veil is a memorial for the victims and a reference to her identity as a Pakistani-American woman. It’s also a tool. The motive of her work is awareness and action. She activates us, as passive viewers, to share in the burden as we are encouraged to lift the veil and carry the weight.
Qinza Najm is a multi-disciplinary artist. Originally trained as a painter, she now enlists a broad range of mediums in her creative practice. She’s an agnostic when it comes to technique; being primarily motivated by a compulsion to speak for the voiceless by any means necessary. Although hasty appraisal might label Qinza as a political or feminist artist, a careful analysis reveals an artist intent on personal exploration.
Her Pakistani upbringing had a profound impact on Qinza’s world-view. She noticed a culture of silence, a culture of invisibility. She noticed that women, particularly lower-class women, were encouraged to keep silent; to not speak their minds. As her life took her around the globe, from Lahore to Atlanta and then to New York, she noticed the resonance of this invisibility in American culture.
Qinza is using her artistic practice to speak up for the marginalized voices around the world. She is the product of two cultures and has found herself in the position of celebrating and critiquing them both. She has experienced marginalization and believes that cultures can progress only when voices rise up together.
She seeks to start conversations where none existed. She encourages us to listen closely to the emergent murmurs. She is amplifying those voices, joining in the chorus and adding a unique view that bridges a cultural divide. Ultimately, Qinza is questioning power dynamics. She is questioning traditional male-dominated political power on a broad, cultural level and the reverberations of those assumptions within personal, domestic relationships.
I sat down with Qinza Najm in her Manhattan studio to listen to her story.
“I’m reacting to what I’m living in and I feel this urgency to say something.”
Q: How did you become an artist?
A: My background is that I have my Ph.D. in Psychology but I always wanted to be an artist full time. But coming from a Pakistani background where, either you are an engineer or a doctor, and then respected for that, as opposed to being an artist, it was hard for me to make the switch. It was a very challenging to have the whole world be against me pursuing art including all my friends and family. It was a tough journey, but ultimately very satisfying. I would not trade it for anything in the world. I left a pretty comfortable lifestyle to move to New York to pursue this and never looked back. But, for me, it was like, burn all your bridges and either do it or don’t do it. Deal with the consequences.
Q: You have a Ph.D. in Psychology?
A: Yes. One of the main reasons that I switched from psychology to art is because I began to realize that when you publish as a doctorate, in those journals, only a very small percentage of the population actually reads those articles. But with art, it’s an interesting platform to have your voice be heard on a much broader scale through art. I wanted to bring difficult conversations to the surface. For me, this seemed like the best way to do that.
Q: What are you working on right now?
A: Right now, I’m focusing on investigating desire, gender, violence, the male gaze and how that affects the conversations that are happening. The Trump thing and the whole “grab them” thing, that’s still very much a part of our culture. I think I’m more interested in how, sometimes, the bad practices become the norms of the society. Whether it’s the beating of women and saying that’s not a big deal. In many cultures, and to a certain extent, in American culture, what happens within a relationship is viewed as nobody else’s business. Even if what is happening is very violent and destructive. These are the conversations that I want to provoke so that people will do something about it in their own way, whether it’s big or small.
Q: So, your interest, does it come from a sociological/intellectual interest? Or, is this coming from personal experience.
A: I think a little bit of both but, more, I am curious and I want to ask these questions. But, I don’t want to make this about male-bashing because it’s not about that. I know there are great men out there. I want this to be teamwork. I don’t want it to be like, “Oh, women are victims and men are bad.” No. Let’s do something about it as a community and a cohesive progressive culture.
Q: You’re fundamentally a painter but you use all these other mediums. What has that journey been like?
A: It’s been a very exciting and challenging journey. By nature, I am very experimental in my work. I enjoy taking risks and failing, sometimes failing miserably. I love failure because that’s where the new stuff comes out of. You create questions and try to get some new things from that questioning…
Q: Where does that questioning come for?
A: The questions come from what is obsessively in my dreams and in my mind… Obsessively I am like, what the fuck… The questions come from my anger. The questions come for me thinking, “What the hell? Are we still in the cave ages in certain ways?” Why? I think my questions come out of my pain, my anger, and my frustration. Then I write and the idea dictates what the medium is going to be. I’m totally reacting to my current environment. I’m reacting to what I’m living in and I feel this urgency to say something.